Catnapping, is it normal?

Catnapping can be such a struggle. We often hear from parents who are just about pulling their hair out with their little one, just sleeping one sleep cycle or even less. What I find repeatedly is that as soon as parents are given clear knowledge and strategies with catnapping, it's like a weight lifted off their shoulders.
I'm going to cover the following topics:
  1. Catnapping and development
  2. What can contribute to catnapping?
  3. What you can do
  4. What if your baby really is still really tired after a catnap?
  5. What about naps that are not even one sleep cycle?
1. Catnapping and development
One of the main groups we hear from when it comes to catnapping are parents of around 4-5 month olds. We will cover information for all ages but the first and most important points we want to make are below:

Catnapping is completely developmentally normal around the age of 4-5 months.  While there are changes that we can consider to try to improve a child's opportunity for sleep, even then many will just catnap potentially for several weeks.  Trying to 'fix' this is like trying to fix a 3-month-old who is not crawling yet. It is developmentally normal.
(Image by Regina Petkovic from Pixabay)

Babies don’t have to sleep for more than one cycle. We hear from many parents who have been told their child must sleep for 1.5-2 hours.  These poor parents are often at their wits end stuck in a room with an upset child for sometimes an hour and a half trying to get the little one to resettle.  Of course, we can support their sleep the best we can but there will still be times they will just catnap.
One sleep cycle is still good sleep!  Often just hearing this helps parents feel like the pressure has lifted.  That sleep is still a great sleep.  Also, if your child has one sleep cycle then you do not need to shorten their next awake time. 
There are no developmental risks or impacts to over tiredness in babies.  Chronic extended over-tiredness is something completely different but we need parents to know that while over-tiredness in a baby or child isn’t ideal (upset, grumpiness and challenge in finding sleep) we also need to be clear that are no developmental risks. Lack of sleep is not an issue in terms of development until school age and beyond.

2. What can contribute to catnapping? 
Developmental changes
  • As above, there will just be times that regardless of what we do a child will go through a phase of catnapping
  • Very common around 4-5 months
Not awake long enough before their nap
  • They may be tired enough to sleep but a catnap is enough to alleviate the tiredness, replenish their sleep tank and they are ready to go
Micro-sleeps while feeding before the nap
  • If parents want to feed to sleep and it’s working well for their child and family, we say go for it
  • When it’s not working out and people want to make a shift, then it’s important to understand that a child having little micro-sleeps while feeding can impact the nap
  • Each micro-sleep reduces the tiredness a little bit which can result in struggling to get to sleep or a shorter nap
  • When a little one is overtired, this can impact the way they get to sleep and stay asleep.  It can shift their sleep architecture and make it challenging for them to consolidate their sleep cycles
Change of environment
  • If bub falls asleep in one location (like arms of parent) and then stirs at the end of their first sleep cycle finding themselves in a completely different sleep environment, this can be upsetting for them
  • This can result in them being unable to find sleep again. 
  • Sometimes this shift in their environment can also trigger a wake up much earlier than the end of the sleep cycle as they sense a shift in their sleep environment

3. What can you do about catnapping?
There will be times that we just have to ride out the stage of catnapping but here are some things you can do to support your child’s sleep.
Suitable Awake Times
  • Use a two-pronged approach to understand your child's suitable awake time between naps 
  • Firstly, use an age-based guide as a framework
  • Secondly, observe your child in about the 15 minutes they are due for a nap to see if your child does/doesn’t show tired cues
  • Using both approaches together means you can get a great understanding of how long your child can be awake for before they will need their next nap
  • It's important to note that some children have really clear and predictable sleep cues and others don't. 
  • In this latter situation you can only but use the framework and some trial and error. 
Approach for Settling to Sleep
  • Decide on the approach you want to use with settling to sleep
  • If you are going to feed to sleep and then transfer your child, some babies will wake at the end of one cycle and some won’t. If they wake after a short sleep then you can then try to resettle as needed.
  • If your aim is to support your child to sleep in their sleep space, then we encourage a gradual gentle approach to provide support as they find their way, but they are falling asleep in their sleep space
  • This can enable a child to be comfortable in that sleep environment when they stir at the end of the cycle rather than being upset
Get in early
  • Another approach is when a parent knows there is a pattern of catnapping, they can go to their child before they stir and providing some gentle hands on support and presence to support their child moving into their next sleep cycle
  • Another angle on this is the method of very gently rousing (not fully waking) a child at a very particular point in the first sleep cycle where they will be tired enough to go back to sleep and this resets the start of a sleep cycle to help them extend their sleep. Some parents find this a scary option!

 4. What if your baby is still really tired after a short nap?
This can be such a challenge as they have had some sleep that means they may find it hard to get back to sleep but not quite enough for them to feel ready to get going again.  It’s not ideal for them to be tired but if they are just not resettling after about 15 minutes then we typically suggest that you just get them up and move forwards with the day. 
This also really depends on the age of your child and what has happened in the rest of the day.  For example, if a young baby has had a challenging day and they rouse early from a late afternoon nap then it would be great for a parent not to try to resettle in the child’s sleep space.  Instead they may just get the baby straight up into the carrier to help extend that sleep to avoid over tiredness late in the day and for bedtime.

 5. What about naps even shorter than one sleep cycle?
Sometimes we talk to parents who have a child that may just sleep 10 or 15 minutes and then wake up upset.  Or they regularly just have 20-minute naps.  These are very short naps, and in these instances, we would always look at the full range of considerations reviewed above and also delve in to identify what else may be going on that's unique to their situation. 
We hope you find this information useful!  If you are looking for some personalised sleep coaching then we would love to help you.  We offer support across Australia and New Zealand (other locations on needs basis as time-zones allow).
Author: Annie Littlehales
Sleep Coach at Baby of Mine